ON those occasions when religious faith and secular politics must mix and conduct business the process can be painful. I envy those whose fealty to either of these realms is so certain and absolute that they rarely permit matters pertaining to the other ever to intrude. Many of us, though, who have horses in both of these never-ending races, spend much of our lives twitching uneasily when our political allegiances detach and then abscond completely from the previous certainties of religious practice. We then waste time trying to re-unite the two in some idyllic future Xanadu of our fond imagining. In our hearts, though, we know it can never happen.

Religious faith, like political activism, demands absolute loyalty. This is all jolly when we find hazy landscapes large enough to accommodate each other’s beliefs. Climate change and the environment is one of these, as is our God-given responsibility to protect and care for the beasts which share our planet’s resources. A commitment to avoid killing our fellow human beings is another joint enterprise where faith and politics can co-exist quite happily. We can also hold hands and happily sing Kumbaya together when railing against foodbanks and health inequality.

Then, as they always do, sex and relationships come breenging in; knocking over the furniture; wrecking the joint and breaching the peace like drunken in-laws at the end of a Glasgow wedding. Your church starts to micro-manage the happy arrangement by asking awkward questions about abortion and euthanasia; about how we value life at its beginning and at its end. Secular politics responds by asking the church what right it has to interfere in people’s happiness when it can’t even protect many of the children entrusted to the care of its priests.

There you are, caught in the middle, trying to reconcile your attempts at being a good socialist with your allegiance to a Catholic faith that nurtured and protected generations of your community in those times when it was reviled and ridiculed. The easy option would be simply to ditch one for the other and have done with all the hassle. That’s not easily done, though, and so you struggle on, seeking to juggle both and losing friends along the way because of the untidy concessions you have made.

I exchanged harsh words recently with one old friend who said that he was a supporter of Donald Trump on account of the American president’s pro-life outlook. “It’s just that Trump’s respect for human life changes with the weather and depends on what colour it comes in,” was my smartypants reply. It kind of escalated rather quickly from there and featured far too much swearing and male aggression; I’m not sure if we’ll recover the situation. Similarly, I was rebuked by a kind person I’ve always admired because I accept my church’s teaching about an unborn child’s equal right to life. “Who gets to decide what constitutes a viable life and what does ‘viable’ mean anyway,” I asked. We’ve rarely spoken since. In those places where deeply-held political and religious beliefs collide there are many orphans.

In my family, as in many others across the west of Scotland, the sinews of our Christian faith and socialist beliefs have traditionally intertwined and reinforced each other. When Scotland’s Irish-Catholic community was struggling for acceptance and causing suspicion and resentment it was the secular Labour Party which lifted us up; invited us in and encouraged us to make our own contribution to the civic life of the nation. Justice and peace was at the heart of the Labour offering and in these my community found a way to be Scottish.

This weekend the Catholic Church in Scotland will make a brave attempt to stake its interest in the 2019 General Election. A letter authored by its bishops will be communicated to all of its members attending Mass in more than 500 parishes and in which the bishops offer some guidance on the issues that Catholics ought to be concerned with. Parishioners are being urged to elect an individual representative who reflects as closely as possible our beliefs.” I immediately took refuge in the qualification “as closely as possible”. This gives hopeless compromisers like me an ocean of wriggle room. It also wisely seems to acknowledge that there is no such thing in an election as a candidate who will tick all of your boxes.

The letter makes specific reference to poverty and the growing use of foodbanks; freedom of religion and conscience and the morality of stockpiling nuclear weapons. “Legislation in our country should also welcome refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, remove the inhumane policy of indefinite immigration detention.” It is unequivocal in its condemnation of nuclear weapons. “The use of any weapon that causes more than individual and proportionate harm to civilians is immoral and is rejected by the church,” it says. Elsewhere it conveys anger about the increase of foodbanks and the growing number of people who have come to rely upon them.

Already, the Bishops’ letter has been interpreted as an instruction not to vote Conservative. This is a bit too simplistic. The letter also re-affirms traditional church teaching about the right to life of unborn children and its opposition to euthanasia, issues which directly conflict with the values of the mainstream political left. Nevertheless, the overwhelming tone of the letter is left/liberal in accordance with the political leanings of a majority of Scotland’s 800,000 or so Catholics. I think the church has just about got the balance right.

It would be wrong for the bishops to alienate the significant number of churchgoers who traditionally vote Conservative but who are sincere in their faith. I’m implacably opposed to the Conservative world view and especially as currently espoused by the Little Englanders who have seized control of the party. Yet Christian Conservatives have their own dilemmas reconciling faith and politics which I suspect are little different from mine and I’m in no position to pronounce moral judgments on their choices.

As a Catholic I’m asked to believe that my church retains the full deposit of faith; that though other religions might have part of the truth, we see the whole of the moon, as it were. The inexactness of a faltering existence mocks such certainty, though. It is the same in the realm of secular politics.